The Paradox of the Holiday Season

929071_76399849Every year at this time I invite people to blog for us about grief and the holidays. Usually, I invite people that have blogged for us before and sometimes I find new voices to invite. A couple of years ago, I invited Elizabeth Neeld to blog for us and she’s been generous enough to gift us with her words ever since. Grief knows no master and while we each grieve differently, we also each grieve the same and many of us feel grief for years following our loss. Elizabeth understands this and her words bring hope for those who find the holiday season daunting. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

The holiday season is such a paradox for those of us who are grieving.

Outside are sparkly lights, bright colors, happy sounds. But inside we feel a kind of perpetual night: empty spaces, deep sadness, stark aloneness.

To be honest, it’s going to be a special type of difficult time for us from, say, at least mid-November through the dark winter months of January and perhaps even February. The holidays and the weeks following require every ounce of our energy. And the people we miss every day of the world seem even more absent during these weeks of festivity, traditions, and all the “coming home for the holidays.”

What can we do?

Over the years—with the suicide of a grandfather, the sudden death of a young husband, the loss of parents eight days apart—I’ve learned to do a few things that make life better during this especially difficult time. None of these things that I’ve found that help me are earth-shaking. They are simple actions. But actions that I have discovered are actually doable, even when I have the “holiday blues.”

If any of these simple actions appeal to you, please join me in taking the actions this season. Or perhaps my suggestions will inspire you to think of actions yourself, actions not in my list but actions that appeal to you.

One thing I love to do is buy an amaryllis during the holiday season—the kind that is only a bulb and that says on the box, “Will bloom in 5-6 weeks.” I put this flower-in-waiting in a place that I can see it, knowing how beautiful it is going to be in January, but also knowing that there is a lesson here for me. Something about the importance in my life of a quiet, growing season, a time when a bloom is promised but not yet present, a time when you water and you wait.

Another quiet activity I build into the holiday season is listening to specific music that I choose because I find it beautiful and soothing. I choose a collection of music that I experience as quiet harmony. This morning I was playing Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and also the Cowboy Junkies’ “Dreaming a Dream of You.” Then next I played Elvis’s “Amazing Grace” and Jeff Major’s beautiful renditions of the Psalms (complete with harp music). This may sound a bit like over-planning; but during the holiday season I think ahead of time of what music makes me feel better and I make sure I know where this music is. Then when I need something beautiful and harmonious, I have the music handy. And I try to listen a lot, to rest and just listen.

I’m sure we could read all sorts of sophisticated explanations about why music helps us; but I’m happy to settle for something quite simple. This is something I learned from one of my early music teachers: that when you press down a key on the piano, you think you are hearing one note, but you are really hearing the key you have pressed plus all its overtones. These overtones—higher and higher sounds on the piano—that you hear at the same time you press the key down produce the note you hear just as all the colors in the spectrum produce the color white you are seeing when you look at a cloud. And what was so amazing that I remember it to this day was my teacher’s assertion that the overtones of a note in music are mathematical, that they occur in specific ratios, that they always occur in the same progression, and that they never change because they are a part of the physical universe. What the ancients called the music of the spheres is related to these set-in-nature harmonics. So, in my amateur understanding of why I feel better after I listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings is that I’ve heard order. I’ve heard the natural harmonics of notes and overtones. I’ve heard sound which conforms to a progression of ratios set in the universe. And somehow, in listening to this music, I am returned to balance, to internal order, to a sense of more harmony in my own life.

Cup_EHNeeldSo may I invite you to rearrange your schedule for the next few minutes? Choose some beautiful music. Make a cup of tea. Sit and look at something growing…maybe a tree or an herb in your kitchen or a flower (or bulb) in a pot. Simple actions. But simple actions that can make all the difference.

Blog Post © by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, author of Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World; Tough Transitions: Navigating Your Way Through Difficult Times; With Eyes Wide Open.

© Iphoto by Elizabeth Harper Neeld.

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Grief Triggers Do Not Have to be Frightening

1263945_75356362Today we welcome back returning guest blogger, Dr. Stanley Kissel from the National Widower’s Organization. Dr. Kissel’s words are timely and his personalization of the topic makes many feel a kinship with him. His thoughts on dealing with grief bring hope to many as we head into the holiday season. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day can signal rough waters ahead! Those who have suffered a more recent loss are at greater risk to experience the overwhelming feelings of loneliness and despair. However, even those of us whose loss is not so recent can come down with a case of “I thought I was through with those terrible feelings of grief.”

Triggers come at the most unexpected times. You’re walking along, feeling good and admiring all of the fancy holiday displays on the houses and stores in your neighborhood. Suddenly you notice a Christmas wreath with a 50% off sign in its center. Out of nowhere, your eyes start to moisten or you feel the tears coming down your cheek. And there it is – the grief. Naturally, re- experiencing the grief over a loved one lost to you is never easy. But it can also provide an opportunity to re-experience the love and good times you shared with your spouse.

While I was grieving over the loss of my wife of 48 years, I was living under the twin black clouds of despair and loneliness.   I began to write and decided to use locales and experiences my wife and I had shared together. I wrote about novels that included a number of cities in Europe that my wife and I visited, places where we had good times together. As I created the adventures that my characters experienced, I felt that my wife was sitting by my side. I was reminded of all the good times we spent together and how fortunate I was to have married her. This helped to lessen the pain of my loss.

Although you cannot control the events which trigger the pain and despair of your loss, you can learn how to control how long you will permit them to stay. Talk to yourself, feel the pain, but after a few minutes say to yourself “Stop,” and then focus your thoughts on something more pleasant or constructive.

ID-10041110A lesson to be learned – when you experience these unexpected triggers of grief, keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole! Remember the love and the happy times that you and your spouse shared together.

Spending time with meaningful friends and family members who you find understanding of your situation is another helpful antidote to the triggers that are lurking in the background during the holidays.   Unfortunately for many who are grieving, spending time with friends who are happy can be a painful experience.   Recent research by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist, talks to this dilemma, specifically about those who find it difficult to break out of their loneliness.   She found that people who are unhappy can find it troublesome to be around people who are happy and can be envious of their happiness.

She suggests that one significant way to become more involved with others is to do kind acts for or with them. For example at the family Thanksgiving dinner, offer to help with cleaning-up the dishes, or volunteer to help out with family members at a soup kitchen during Christmas.   Such simple acts of kindness to others will be appreciated by those on the receiving end and make you feel less uncomfortable. Take a small but beginning step to breaking the shackles of loneliness.

Dr. Stanley Kissel
Psychologist and Novelist
Officer, National Widowers Organization

Honoring Our Veterans

On November 11 we honor our country’s veterans. It is a day to reflect on their bravery, courage and sacrifice for our freedom. Please take a moment to thank any veteran or currently serving soldier for all they do. On this day, I always remember the famous poem from a Canadian soldier and it brings tears to my eyes. The kind of grief we feel on Veteran’s Day is the grief of a nation made free through the sacrifice of many. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

1446201_26798240From the Wikipedia on the poem In Flanders Fields.

McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. They attacked the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915, but were unable to break through the Canadian line, which held for over two weeks. In a letter written to his mother, McCrae described the battle as a “nightmare”: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” Alexis Helmer, a close friend, was killed during the battle on May 2. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, WWI soldier, physician and poet

Image courtesy of Free Images and GiniMiniGi.

Releasing Grief Through Dance

Today’s guest blogger, Sandy Oshiro Rosen, talks about what, in the past, would be considered a non-traditional means of dealing with grief. These days, the bereaved are looking at different, more creative ways of assuaging their feelings of loss and pain. Sandy’s experiences as a dance instructor led her to the writing of a book about grief, BARE – The Misplaced Art of Grieving and Dancing. Her views on grief are refreshing and her stories helpful for those looking beyond the traditional. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

734604_29390754If there is one profound thing I have uncovered about grieving is that it so rarely has adequate language or “voice” to even touch the depth of emotion screaming under the composure of daily living. The pain mounts if for no other reason than that there is no means, no avenue for its release. Add to that the layers of loss that begin to be peeled back as the days of a loved one’s absence invade the corners of life with a constant escalation of sorrows.

These tormenting emotions need to be liberated from a person’s being, lest they inflict greater injury on body and soul. Telling stories, weeping with others, writing about the emotions can be great vehicles to release the intensity of the churning sentiments. My friends and I have discovered yet another, unexpected, means by which grief might be released…dance.

I recounted one of these experiences recently:

As a dance instructor in the studio I own, Vanessa would sometimes arrive at class showing evidence of a night rendered sleepless by emotional torment, her grief assaulting her. I had made an agreement with her at the beginning of the year. When she had lamented, just weeks after the loss of her baby, Mattea, “I really don’t think I’m up for teaching this year—I’m still in so much pain,” I had responded, “It’s all right. Just keep coming, and if you can’t teach on any given day, we will just sit and cry with you.”

And we did. On several occasions, mid-class, she would crumple to the floor in a bawling heap, cradled in a welcoming lap, as one young woman after another would pray for her, coddle her, massage her aching limbs, weep for her, weep with her. Whatever they could offer in comfort, they did. Of the key elements of comfort offered, the most unexpectedly effective was dance. When her pain had no voice, when there were no words to express all that she was feeling, one of the dancers would begin to dance spontaneously over her. Her grief seemed borne by the flow of the arms, by the gestures of the hands, by the articulation of the torso, by the stoop of the shoulders, by the bending of the legs. Unleashed, her tears would stream. Those were the most beautiful and moving times any of us had ever experienced. Over the next months, which turned inevitably into years, dance would become our companion, our guide—a mystifying and persistent interpreter of grief.

(Excerpt from BARE – The Misplaced Art of Grieving and Dancing by Sandy Oshiro Rosen)

I’d encourage mourners to raise up community around you who would be willing to allow your grief to pour out…and maybe even to dance with you.

Sandy Oshiro Rosen


Sandy and her musician husband live on the west coast of Canada where they have conspired to stir up creative community that is vulnerable, innovative and compassionate. She is a mentor, teacher, communicator, and dance studio director who has cared for the bodies and emotional well-being of many individuals ( Her recent book BARE – The Misplaced Art of Grieving and Dancing is full of passionate, story-driven commentaries on everyday casualties, fresh approaches to grieving and uncovers the soul-relieving effects of dance.

For a free chapter of Sandy’s book, click HERE.

Photo courtesy of and artist007.

Handling the Pain of Grief

This week our guest blogger talks about handling grief’s pain. As a hospice chaplain, he regularly deals with those who have lost a loved one. He’s seen first hand how the pain of grief affects them and is well qualified to give us some words of wisdom on dealing with loss. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

210060_3399“This hurts,” Sandy whispered, her face hidden in her hands.

Sandy had just lost her mother. She knew it was coming. She’d known for months. She was well prepared.

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

With that, she let loose and wept, clutching a dishcloth, the last thing her mother knitted before her fingers lost their coordination.

She rocked back and forth, weeping.

“It hurts!” she wailed.

I remember when my dad passed. I was in shock. Yes, I cried, but it took a while for the pain to catch up to me. When it did, I could hardly breathe. My world, as I knew it, had changed forever.

Whatever our loss, it hurts. Someone precious has been taken away. Someone we love is gone. Things will never be the same, and our “new normal” isn’t something we wanted or asked for.

At first, I looked for my dad everywhere. Many times I thought I could hear him the kitchen. Every evening I would walk through the apartment door and yell, “Dad, I’m home,” only to be greeted by the still silence of my new reality. It seemed like I bumped into pain and grief at every turn.

When I began to know and accept that life wasn’t the same, and was never going to be the same, I began to heal. This takes time. How much? The answer to that is as individual as we are.

Things are different now, and it doesn’t feel good. It hurts. It hurts badly.

If we allow ourselves to feel the pain, it frees us to move through it. If we try to avoid it, the buried hurt festers. It will surface again, most likely in unwelcome ways that damage our health and relationships. The only way past the pain is through it.

“It hurts!”

It does. It should.

I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but you can get through this in a healthy way that honors the memory of your loved one. Your task is not to move on without them, but to move on with them in a new way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere are some things to consider when the grief pains hit:

Take a deep breath and feel the grief. Resist stuffing it or running from it. If you need to excuse yourself and go somewhere private, do it. You may need to cry, wail, or even scream. That’s okay. Take care of yourself by feeling what’s real.

Do something to honor your loved one today. Tell them you love them. Write them a letter. Set up an empty chair and talk to them. Give a gift in their memory. Share a story or memory with a friend or acquaintance.

Find something in the present to be thankful for. Things may be dark and heavy, but practicing thanksgiving can help bring perspective to your heart. Try beginning and ending each day by thinking of three things you’re thankful for. Over time, the discipline of thanksgiving can bring much healing and comfort.

Yes, it hurts. The pain can be dull and heavy, or sharp and intense. You will make it through this. Life will be different, but it can still be good.

Gary Roe has experienced a number of losses over the years and currently works as a writer, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. He is the author of Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One and Surviving the Holidays Without You. He also writes inspirational articles based on the stories of hospice patients for several newspapers. Visit him at

Photos courtesy of Free Images, badgerl and vxdigital.